MCA - 2002 - 74 minutes

The Roots, that Philadelphia crew who excel in austere jazzy hip-hop, have recently had a rush of eclectic blood to their collective head. Phrenology’s crazed mixture of styles, wacky samples (Swing Out Sister, fer God’s sake!) and very old-school beats like the drums from the truly venerable Apache on 'Thought @ Work' brings to mind nothing more than (irony of ironies!) a black Beastie Boys.

Rock vs rap stalled straight after Run DMC’s 'Walk This Way'. Lately it’s been lost in a cul de sac of shouty vocals and nasty nu metal riffing, but The Roots revive the idea with aplomb on 'The Seed 2.0'. The rockist percussion, insidious guitar riff and slightly distorted vocals all nod to the Beasties, before the mic gets passed to a Terence Trent D’Arby soundalike who drops some filthy lyrics in a very sweet voice.

There is so much going on in this track, it epitomises everything positive about this record, the spirit of true fusion, musicianship and street credibility in perfect balance, and most of all, the Roots’ refusal to play the cynical, profit-maximising game of modern hip-hop.

The downside? The determined cross-fertilisation doesn’t always work. Track17 (one of two hidden tracks on the CD) goes from an enjoyable hip-hop banger into cheesy breakbeat techno, while the presence of Nelly Furtado shows that there is still a commercial agenda at work in the band, presumably a hangover from the massive success of 'You Got Me', the (admittedly excellent) collaboration with Erykah Badu from their previous LP.

But 'Phrenology' effortlessly rises above its flaws, a record that is admirable and enjoyable in equal measure. That is a very rare thing in rap music these days. The branches may be weak, but the roots stay strong.

Luke McManus

Tracklisting: Phrentrow - Rock You - !!!!!!! – Sacrifice - Rolling With Heat - Waok (Ay) Rollcall - Thought @ Work - The Seed (2.0) - Break You Off – Water – Quills - Pussy Galore – Complexity - Something in the Way of Thing (In Town) - [Untitled Track] - [Untitled Track] - [Untitled Hidden Track] –[Untitled Track]